Sunday, September 17, 2023

A buried cold case comes to light in Icelandic crime thriller "Reykjavik"

The closest I’ve been to Iceland is the Maine coast. No recent volcano eruptions in Maine. Maine weather can be cold but Iceland has it beat. If you speak Icelandic as do 330,000 of the island’s inhabitants, you may be really good with languages but have few people to converse with in Portland or Kennebunkport. Both places offer great seafood and rugged terrain. They share another facet of life: fiction, mainly atmospheric thrillers. Maine claims Stephen King. Iceland claims Ragnar Jonasson.

If you watch Netflix, “The Valhalla Murders” may have popped up on your much-watch streaming series list. Valhalla is Norse heaven or their version of it. A majority of Icelanders share Viking DNA and Iceland was once part of Norway. But the Valhalla in the series written by Thordur Palsson -is, to paraphrase one former resident, “a living hell.” It’s a facility for troublesome youth. It’s also home to predatory adults. You won’t be surprised to find out that one of its youthful residents is now an adult and bent on revenge for beatings and torture and rape by staffers. It takes eight episodes for the police to get their culprit. Along the way, you get many views of snowbound landscapes and slate-gray skies; frigid small towns and one big gray city, Reykjavik.

You don’t need me to tell you that the countries of Scandinavia have a reputation for gloom and doom. Norway claimed Iceland until 1944. Vikings were bloodthirsty conquerors (great sailors though). Icelandic sagas feature much bloodshed. You’ve seen Ingmar Bergman movies. There are also the bizarre worlds of Lasse Hallstrom in “My Life as a Dog” with a 12-year-old’s ruminations on a dying Soviet dog in space and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” with its Iowa teen protagonist as caretaker of his intellectually disabled brother and morbidly obese mother. Also, Sweden is known for the graphic violence of Stieg Larsson, author of three posthumously published novels that begins with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” It gave rise to films in Sweden and the U.S. that were not designed for family popcorn night.

The latest energetic crime thriller from Iceland is “Reykjavik” by Ragnar Jonasson and Katrin Jakobsdottir. The title is important as the 1986 scene for most of the narrative. It also is the setting for the city’s 200th anniversary bash and the famous summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikeal Gorbachev. Murder happens against this dramatic backdrop along with the investigation of a 30-year-old cold case. On the way, we meet a terrific roster of characters and a plot that kept me guessing.

“Reykjavik” was translated by Victoria Cribb. Hats off to her for keeping the author’s pace and vision. Also, all the Icelandic names of people and locations. We get lots of details of everyday life which includes lots of coffee drinking. This story of death hums with life and makes it an enjoyable read. I have a feeling a filmed version is in the works for the streaming services. The author creates scenes that cry out for the cinema. We shall see what transpires.

One more thing: the co-author of Reykjavik holds a master’s degree in Icelandic literature. She wrote her master’s thesis on another Icelandic crime fiction author, Arnaldur Indridason. She now is prime minister of Iceland and previously was the Minister of Education. So there’s that…

Kudos for the books authors and editors who include a pronunciation guide to the characters’ names and also placenames. I’d like to see more of that in translated works.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Naomi Hirahara weaves a murder mystery into a 1940s historical novel and it's swell

Just when I think I’ve read every World War Two-era novel….

“Clark and Division” by Naomi Hirahara brings us into the life of Aki Ito. She’s a spirited young woman, smart and attractive and a bit self-conscious living in her talented older sister’s shadow. She yearns for just the right job and boyfriend, likes to hang around with friends, and knows how to dance the Lindy Hop.

So, she’s just like any other Southern California teen. But you add in the setting conjured by Hirahara and things get serious. Aki is Nisei, born in the U.S. of Japan-born parents. In 1942, her entire family is shipped to Manzanar internment camp, leaving behind their home and property and all-American dreams. Aki spends two years at Manzanar and, at 20, lucks out when selected for the government resettlement program which allows Nisei to move to middle America away from the coasts and start new lives. Aki chooses Chicago because that’s where her sister Rose has resettled. Before Aki and her parents can get off the train, her sister is dead, ostensibly by suicide. She allegedly jumped head-on into an El train and is killed instantly. Nobody knows why. Aki is crushed.

A great set-up for a mystery. Aki is still in shock when she discovers the secret behind Rose’s death and realizes she seems to be the only one interested in figuring out what really happened. She plods along at first but then discovers the strength to take the risks that will solve the case. Along the way, we meet the Nisei of the Clark and Division neighborhood. She has to hide her quest from her very traditional Issei parents. Along the way, we learn about Japanese-American lives, the foods they eat, their jobs, their dreams and fears. The most charming thing about this book are life’s daily details. Hirahara writes the Japanese terms for food, clothes, and many other things. I felt the crushing heat of a Chicago summer. I know how people got around in the city. Some especially good details about riding the El or Elevated Train. I got to see the workings of the famous Newberry Library. I know, the details of a library aren’t exactly high drama. But maybe they are. All this makes the book so down-to-earth and thrilling.

The ending is heartbreaking but also guides Aki into the future. And into the just-published sequel, “Evergreen.” In it, Aki has become a nurse’s aide and returns to southern California where she and other Japanese-Americans have to start from scratch – again. There’s also a murder, of course. While the book is listed under mystery, I’m sure it’s filled with the cultural and location detail that also makes for great historical fiction. Hirahara now has a series on her hands which she’s done before with her earlier books: Mas Arai and Leila Santiago. "Evergreen" is now the second book in the Japantown Series. I’ve ordered a copy. You should too.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

A big thank you to President Biden and a big raspberry to Sen. Romney and other GOP skinflints

I received the following email from President Biden or someone on his staff and signed by Joe. It was in response to a thank you email I wrote to him following my student loan being forgiven through a program initiated by his administration. Here's Biden's letter:

September 6, 2023

Dear Mr. Shay,

Thank you for your support for our shared values, particularly on the issue of student loan debt relief. 

We are facing an inflection point in history, and the decisions we make today are going to decide the course of this Nation for decades to come.  We still have a lot of work to do, but I know there is nothing we can’t do if we do it together.  

I have never been more optimistic about America’s future than I am today.  Keep the faith!


Joe Biden

I blogged about the loan forgiveness here. I admire the fact that President Biden is optimistic about America's future. I shall try to follow in his example although Republicans make that a challenge.

This came from a recent post from the office of U.S. Senator and multimillionaire Mitt Romney of Utah:

The Administration’s new student loan rule would worsen inflation and add to our $32 trillion national debt. Proud to join my colleagues on this resolution to overturn this irresponsible and unfair student loan scheme.

Reminder to Romney: Much of that national debt can be traced back to the tax cut for millionaires and billionaires pushed through Congress by the GOP under Rich Guy President Donald Trump. But Mitt would rather make life difficult for the 4,000-some Utahans (according to the Deseret News) who could qualify for loan forgiveness under Biden's new plan. We aren't as numerous in Wyoming. yet there are plenty of student-loan debtors working low-paying full-time jobs or two even lower-paying part-time jobs. Give them a break. Give us all a break.

Monday, September 04, 2023

After watching Oppenheimer in Missile City, WYO

After watching Oppenheimer with my daughter Annie

Storm clouds on the Wyoming horizon looked like giant mushrooms. No surprise as movie scenes roll through our minds. We recall Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Backdrop for the morality play spread before us, a prairie of missiles perched below ground each with a hundred times the killing power of Fat Man and Little Boy sculpted not far from here on a tableland at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The statistics don’t really matter but I have lived my whole life in the Nuclear Age and so has Annie. The Strontium-90 in my bones will always reveal my origins, child of The Bomb, fallout drifted east to Colorado from desert tests, accidents at Rocky Flats and Hanford, a thousand tiny mistakes. Dr. Oppenheimer, I don’t cheer you as did the delirious nuke workers after Trinity. I don’t curse you. I can’t, father, I simply cannot.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Personal reflections on the student loan forgiveness policy

I got some very good news last week. An email was tagged: “Your student loans have been forgiven.” First I thought it was fake and then I checked it out and yessiree, no more student loan payments. I have been paying off $20,000 in grad school loans since 1993. Successfully, at first, and then as our financial situation experienced some serious ups and downs, I worked with my student loan provider, one of the businesses that the government contracts to provide this service. I would get them down to a payment I could afford and then they would suddenly, as if some invisible switch was pulled, jack it up to a higher level I couldn’t pay. I then would request a forbearance for six months or a year and that would expire, the company added in all of the unpaid interest, and my payments would be higher than ever. Or I would sign on to a payment plan and suddenly my company shuffled me over to another and I had to start all over again. When my wife's coffee shop/art gallery business failed (she was ahead of her time) 20 years ago, we declared bankruptcy which I thought would include my student loans. I neglected to read the fine print.

I consolidated my loans in 2012 when they reached the $102,000 mark and worked out payments with Nelnet and the amount with accrued interest and fees reached $165,000. Interesting to note that the federal government paid off the student loan servicer and it, conceivably, was very happy to have the money and scratch me off their to-do list. Not such a great deal for the feds and my fellow taxpayers. But, as a taxpayer, I was also supporting the government to contract with this servicer which didn’t seem to give a damn about me and millions of others in debt for attending college. One of the worst servicers is FedLoan Servicing, an arm of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, a company co-owned by Betsy DeVos, Trump’s “secretary of education.” The PHEAA was, for a short while, my loan servicer. DeVos made millions while arguing forcefully against student loan forgiveness. She now is back under the rock she came out from under. A very fancy rock to be sure.

But, in good faith, I was paying off my debt. All I asked is that the servicer find me a level I can afford and I will pay it until its paid off or Doomsday arrives, whichever comes first. We all got a reprieve when Covid hit and payments were suspended. According to Mohela, a new loan servicer that picked up my account under President Biden’s watch, when my future payments resumed, I would be billed $1,963 a month. My Social Security deposit (I am 72 and retired) each month is $1,940, slightly above the average Social Security check of $1,701. My wife, who volunteered to go on this journey with me, gets $1,240 a month, below the national average because her working years were spent with childbearing and childcaring and household management, none of which enhanced her Social Security benefits. I am disabled and my wife in a Type 1 diabetic and breast cancer survivor. It’s ludicrous to think that a retiree should remit his Social Security check to the government which deposits it into his credit union account every month. But there you have it. Then again, we have GOPers who believe that Americans should not be allowed to retire at 65 or should never retire and, if they do, don’t deserve the funds that came from their paychecks for 40 years.

The Supreme Court aided by GOPers such as Wyoming's entire Congressional delegation and Governor Gordon, stymied Biden’s forgiveness plan so he found new and interesting ways to relieve the burden of millions, many of whom are senior citizens. Because I made a certain number of payments and loans older than 20-25 years were considered time enough to pay, I was forgiven. My loans were 30 years old. I also worked in public service so I was credited with monthly payments I made which go toward forgiveness. All of Biden’s positive ideas to solve this crippling debt were fought by Republicans because CRUELTY is their middle name. Also, they despite higher education, education of any kind – witness the New College fiasco and GOP-mandated public education requirements in Florida. GOPers, even Harvard-educated ones such as DeSantis, have used the loan forgiveness issue as another cudgel for the MAGA crowd to use against the so-called elites.

I send thanks to Pres. Joe Biden and his allies. 

Remember that the Loan Forgiveness Program could be reversed if the wrong people take control of governance in 2024. 

Saturday, August 19, 2023

In the good ol' summertime, we hear about The Great War and Scott Joplin ragtime

Last time I was in Casper, I could walk on my own. August 21, 2017, the total solar eclipse cut across a swath of Wyoming that ran from Jackson, across Casper, and on to Torrington and a slice of Nebraska and into Kansas and beyond. My first total eclipse and maybe my last as they rarely take the same path. On April 8, 2024, you’ll have to travel to Dallas for totality. In 2033, a slice of Alaska will have totality, and in 2044, it’s northern Montana. On Aug. 12, 2045, your best bet will be Colorado Springs or somewhere in central Utah. In 2045 I will be 94. I may not see it in person although my spirit will be floating around the Rocky Mountains.  

Casper staged a big downtown party with vendors, food trucks, and live music. My wife Chris and I drove up to `stay with our friend Lori. We watched the eclipse from Lori’s backyard, looking through special glasses you could buy anywhere that summer. It was magnificent. I blogged about it here

Monday night, my daughter Annie and I traveled to Casper for Poetry & Music, a summer series sponsored by Artcore that features music interspersed with a writer’s reading. I was the writer that night. Music and writing share some commonalities but some obvious differences. Both stir our souls, when done well, and that’s always the case.

The setting is the Bluebird CafĂ© at the Historic Cheese Barrel. The brick building dates from post-World War 1 with first the Bluebird Mercantile and then the Bluebird Grocery. The latter served as one of Casper’s corner groceries, of which there were many but only one remains as a grocer. The Cheese Barrel was a restaurant serving fantastic breakfasts and lunches. I ate there many times. The breakfasts, when you could get a seat, were divine. Catered lunches made their way to many Casper College events such as the annual literary conference that I helped organize. 

Owner Jacquie Anderson has rehabbed the place to look like the grocery store of the 1940s and it is charming. Tables are scattered through the main room. For the Artcore series, Jacquie and her staff line up 50-some chairs facing a small stage. There’s a lights-and-sound tech on hand to make it cozy. This was especially important Monday. On my way in, I noticed the Primrose Retirement Center van. “My people,” I joked with Annie. Sure enough, the place was packed with people my age. This is a challenge for me – acting my age. I can’t quite get that I’m 72 and disabled. My spiffy red rollator walker reminds me daily as does my drop left foot and back pain. Neuropathy tingles my hands and feet. My mind is active as ever although I sometimes can’t remember an actor’s name in an old movie and have to dredge the info up from the Internet.

The reading went well. Some acknowledged they also had grandparents from that time, some of them serving overseas during WWI. One was a retired nurse. People our age really seem to like historical fiction maybe because they’ve lived through so much history and it connects to their past. Wasn’t sure how all of these white folks would take to the relationship between Frannie and African-American character Joe Junior or the sex references but they seemed to take them in stride. They laughed in the right places. We took an intermission right before Frannie goes up for her speech, one woman even asking me to give a clue about it but I just said, “Cake first.” Annie says I should read before more people of an advanced age because they connect with it in different ways than some of the younger folks in the room. Carolyn Deuel and Artcore, sponsors of the event, said her grandmother’s card-playing club volunteered on the home front during WWI and even rolled bandages for the soldiers overseas. All these people from previous generations are gone now and people our age may be the last generation that actually knew the grandparents with connections of The Great War.

The night’s bill began with a classical music performance by woodwinds quartet Rara Avis. In then read the first section. Then came the cake break (the chocolate was chocolicious). I then read the second part of the story and took a few questions. Rara Avis closed the night with performances of some American classics such as Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and “In the Good Ol’ Summertime.”

Keep in mind that all events like this take a lot of time and energy to set up. Funding, too, as writers and performers get paid. Supporting the arts has never been more important. Writing, in particular, has been under fire by the MAGA-inspired Moms for Liberty who attack books and librarians. They are fascists and must be stymied in their bid to transform us into bobblehead dolls.

I will let you know when my book is ready to be read and/or banned.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

On stage in Casper: Historical fiction and woodwinds with a Baroque emphasis

So excited to be featured at the Artcore Music & Poetry Series on Monday, Aug. 14, 7:30 p.m., at The Bluebird at the Historic Cheese Barrel, 544 S. Center St., Casper. I'll be on stage with Rara Avis, a quartet of musicians that "explores music for woodwinds with an emphasis on the Baroque." I will be reading a chapter from my newly completed novel, "Zeppelins Over Denver" that explores life in post-World-War-1 Colorado. Here's a bit of a teaser:

Nurse Lee Speaks to the Garden Club

Nurse Frannie Lee clutched the pages of her speech as she sat at a round table with her mother and two sisters at The Old Line State Garden Club in Baltimore. Her mother had talked her into this. As March 1919 stretched into April and then into May, Frannie’s home-bound boredom was showing. As the spring days grew longer, she saw no end in sight for her ennui.  The Army had mustered out its civilian wartime nurses and now she didn’t know what came next. One day her mother suggested a speech to “the girls” at the garden club. This struck Frannie as hilarious since most of the club’s members hadn’t been girls for decades. She and her sisters once referred to them as The Stale Old Ladies Gabbing Club. Now her married sisters both were members.

To be continued...

For info and tickets ($8):